Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Korean Spa

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking through my underwear drawer and found a gift certificate from my mother-in-law for the Korean Spa in downtown L.A. It was perfect timing because I needed to get away, do something different, and take a little time for myself. I asked her if she would watch the kids and called to set up an appointment for the "Pure Bliss" experience. Little did I know then, but the Korean spa would end up changing my life.

In the past, the spas I have visited smelled like tea tree oil, lavender and mint. They were filled with women in white robes silently being ushered into dark massage rooms where ocean sounds play through small IPod docks. I knew the Korean spa would be a little different…mostly because my mother and mother-in-law (who are both unique individuals and avid fans) kept telling me, “Now remember Kelsey, everyone is NAKED, completely NAKED. It is so WONDERFUL that women can be so NAKED. Our generation was NEVER comfortable with our bodies. It is SO liberating. Stay the WHOLE day, you will LOVE IT!”

It had been a rough week and I was determined to relax; not talk to anyone and enjoy my time there. Both the relaxing and not talking (are 4,000 cell phone minutes each month a lot?) are very uncomfortable for me. The relaxing required me not to worry about the following important items that kept running through my head “What if my daughter gets sunscreen in her eyes? Should I have sprayed for roaches so close to the kitchen cabinet? Why does my downstairs couch smell like a dog, even though we don’t have one? Does my minivan make me look fat?” All of these questions, along with hundreds of others, bombarded my brain as I checked in at the front desk.

At this point, it is important to note that I grew up in locker rooms. Most of my life was spent alternating between being in a pool and a locker room...I am used to women changing, showering, and walking around naked. Therefore, I didn’t think twice about the ‘naked’ requirement of the Korean spa...I was sure it wouldn’t affect me. I checked in with this nice Korean woman whose English was as good as my Korean. She did her best to give me a tour, but unfortunately, I got sidetracked. When we first walked in I looked over at the famous jade floor and froze. There, in the center of the floor, was a large, naked 300lb elderly Korean woman lying on her back. She was asleep, peacefully snoring, covered with only the invisible air around her. My tour guide noticed my distraction and grabbed my arm. She turned and said in a loud whisper, “Pay ttention! Follo Me!” Never had a spa trip been filled with so much pressure.

Inside, the spa was filled with pools…hot, cold, freezing, tea filled, and normal. There are also saunas, showers, oxygen and steam rooms. In the middle of the room is what appears to be a trough or little "creek" of water. The creek is important because this is where women of all shapes and sizes, ethnicities and age, sit NAKED on stools and hand wash themselves while rinsing with big buckets that sit next to the ‘creek’. I kept staring and couldn’t look away. It was as if I had been transported to Africa or the countryside of Asia…without the wild animals or change in climate. I did my best to look unaffected and concentrated on acting like this was no big deal.

Because I hadn’t been listening to my tour guide, I wasn’t really clear on how to best utilize the facility. Because I have always been an overachiever, I was determined to get the most out of my cultural experience. I began to go from hot pool, to normal pool, to freezing pool as fast as I could. Who needs to relax when there is so much water to explore? At one point, I thought I was having a panic attack because my heart was racing so fast. As I got out of the freezing cold pool I began to feel lightheaded and needed to lean against a wall. Suddenly one of the spa people came up to me and said in a whisper, “Be CAFUL, you get dizzy, feel no good, heart beat too fast, relax!”

After an hour of using every pool, room and shower, I knew there was no way I going to be able to keep this up until my appointment, which was still an hour away. I decided I should just lie down on the jade floor, next to the naked woman and try to rest. By the looks of it, I really didn’t think there was anything special about this floor. I had been warned about its Ambien drug inducing powers... but I wasn’t buying it. I got a blanket and laid down on my back while my current ‘to do’ list ran through my head and then... good night sweetheart! The next thing I remember was hearing a woman yelling “Numbr Theerty, Number Theerty!” It was similar to being at a deli and having your number called to pick up your sliced meat. I jumped up and headed into the treatment room.

To call it a treatment room is pushing it. There were no walls or doors and everyone could see what was happening inside. I laid down on one of the four massage tables that were lined up in a row. No need to take off my clothes because I was already completely naked…how convenient! Three other naked ladies were already being plucked, scrubbed and massaged by old Korean women in black bras and panties…I was the last one to join the party. Each table was covered in a plastic fabric that looked like a picnic tablecloth. It was waterproof, which worked out well because the first ten minutes consisted of my lady tossing buckets of water over my entire body while yelling commands like “Head down! Turn! Side! Eyes closed!” For the next hour and 45 minutes I was plucked, scrubbed, rubbed, massaged, kneaded and rinsed like a chicken on a farm.

And then, at some point during this experience, I realized a miracle had happened…I was relaxed!

Not only was I relaxed, but something had happened to me. I was a different person. As I dipped in and out of pools and washed myself by the creek, I was moving as if underwater. I had no where to go and nothing to accomplish. I suddenly began to fantazise that I lived inside this little building, with all these naked women, and the magical jade floor. I sat alone and realized in this place, no one wanted me to get them another chicken nugget. No one needed me to wipe their bottoms, tie their shoes, or shave their backs. I reveled in the fact that it was silent…no football games or Yo Gabba Gabba played in the background. I almost cried I loved it so much.

Every now and then I would remember that eventually I would have to leave. At some point they would turn off the pools and the saunas and ask all of my naked friends to go home. It was scary because I wasn’t ready. Did they know it had taken me almost 8 hours of silence and a small home cooked Korean meal to feel normal again? How could they send me back out into the real world…with all those demands, chores, and people wearing clothes? What if I wanted to be surrounded by naked old ladies for the rest of my life? I kept asking the lady what time it closed and after a while she kindly said, “Don wory, you stay long as need.”

Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that I couldn’t sleep by the creek. There was no way around it…I had to go home. As I sat in my minivan on the 405, happily stuck in traffic, I realized I didn’t need much to make me happy. I realized one day alone in complete silence without any kids, husband, boss, or blackberry was much needed for my soul.

And most importantly, I realized that no matter what people think, not everyone in Los Angeles believes in Brazilian bikini waxes…

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